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Saturday, January 14, 2017

A Church is Like an Airport

Buildings are so integral to the church that it’s hard for us to think of the church apart from them. As much as we like to say that “the church is people,” we’re still pretty tied to our
buildings. When someone says “That’s my church,” they don’t usually mean a group of people, they usually mean “The churchy looking structure on the corner.” And sadly, the closure of a church building usually means the end of the congregation that meets in it.

Our attitude to our buildings influences our understanding of the church, and vice versa. For the first centuries of Christianity, there were no church buildings. Churches met in the homes of wealthy members, and the main image of the church was the household, the oikos, or extended family.

When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the church adopted the basilica, or imperial court house, as the model for its buildings. These buildings conveyed the pomp and circumstance of the newly powerful church.

In the Middle Ages, soaring Gothic cathedrals expressed the soul’s heavenward ascent to God.

In the Protestant Reformation, churches were constructed like lecture halls, with the pulpit acting as the teaching podium from which the educated pastor instructed the congregation in scriptural doctrine. 

After World War II, the nuclear family was seen as the foundation not only of society but of the church, and church buildings were constructed to be like homes, with big kitchens, parlours and gathering rooms for all ages.

So buildings aren’t just functional. They also make a deeply theological statement about how we see the church, and perhaps even God.

For much of the 20th century, the church building was seen as a destination. It was the place to which people were attracted by the quality of preaching, music and programs. The life of the church was contained in the building, and people were expected to come in if they wanted to be part of that life. This is still an extraordinarily powerful impulse, especially among those of us who remember that church. It’s very hard to let go of the idea that our main task is to attract people into the building. It’s also an increasingly painful impulse as we find it harder and harder to convince people that the church is an attractive destination.

More recently, we have seen a reaction against buildings: “Let’s get out of our buildings and into the world!” Some advocate selling all of our buildings and giving the money away because all those bricks and mortar are just a millstone around our neck. Our buildings keep us from faithfully following Jesus, they say.

But there is another way to look at buildings. I got this idea from Reggie McNeal in his book Missional Renaissance: Changing the Scorecard of the Church.  McNeal says that the church ought to be like an airport. Its purpose is not to be the end of people’s journey, but to
help them get somewhere else. The church, he says, is a connector, not a destination.

If we thought of our buildings in those terms, then we would not see the church as being confined to the building. People would come to the building in order to be connected to God and to one another, to be inspired, encouraged, healed, formed, not so they can settle down and stay, but so they can continue their journey.  Most of the church’s life would be lived outside the building, where people live out their faith in their families, their places of work, their neighbourhoods and communities.

If we were to see the church in this way, we would continue to recognize the importance of buildings as gathering places, but we would be under no illusion that the point of being a church was to keep this building open. Or, that our main mission was to get people into the building.  We would be more readily able to let go of them when they become too much to manage and more creative in finding other accommodation. Perhaps it would be a building we share with another congregation, or a rented space, or someone’s home. We would still recognize the need for that meeting place, but we would see whatever building we had as simply a connector to help us get to someplace else.

A building is no more the point of the church than an airport is the point of a trip. But, like airports, buildings can play an essential role in helping us continue our journey of faith.

Monday, January 2, 2017

The Happiness Trap

I once heard a story about a young minister who served a small, mostly older congregation. Church members complained regularly about the absence of young families. So, the minister contacted young couples who had a connection with the church, sat down with them and asked what would make it easier for them to attend. With their input, he made a number of changes to the service, including setting up a play area in the sanctuary with rocking chairs where parents could sit with their young kids during worship.

It worked. Five or six families began to come to church regularly. But then abruptly, they all stopped. The minister called to them to find out if something was wrong. It turned out that one of the elders had phoned each of the families and told them that, while it was nice to see them, people were finding the children disruptive during the service. The church, he said, would be happy to pay for babysitting if they would agree to leave their kids at home.
Despite the minister’s best efforts at damage control, none of those families ever returned.

This story is a classic illustration of what church consultants Gil Rendle and Alice Mann call
“The Happiness Trap.” Churches get caught in the happiness trap when they expect their ministers to create change, but at the same time to keep everybody happy.

Change and contentment are often incompatible goals. As Rendle and Mann put it, “Satisfied people, by definition, do not seek change.”

Most clergy know about the happiness trap. People say they want things to change – fuller pews, more children and youth, increased givings, innovative programming – but then stoutly resist the changes that would allow those things, which they say they want, to happen.

It’s not that people are bad or malevolent. That man who phoned all those young families was probably a well-intentioned and caring person.  Long-time members were upset and he wanted to keep them happy.

But it’s human nature to both wish things were different, but also want them to be the way we like. Change is disruptive. And when we are disrupted, we get anxious, and when we are anxious, we react negatively. The result of this emotional process in churches can be conflict, often very painful conflict.

Add to that the fact that most clergy and church leaders are conflict-averse and, like Sally Field, really want people to like them. (Full disclosure: I am the chief of sinners in this
regard.) We feel it’s our job to make sure that everybody is playing nicely together.

What we don’t often do is to count the cost of this belief that a good church and a contented church are necessarily the same thing. Change grows out of discontentment with the way things are. The people who are happy are the ones who like it the way it is. The unhappy people aren’t there. So the price of valuing happiness above all else is that the church will continue to cater to the wants and needs of the present congregation, fail to reach out to new people and probably get older and smaller with each passing year.

It’s a lot easier to describe the Happiness Trap than it is to escape it. But here are some thoughts about what we can do.

Don’t Play the Blame Game
It’s natural when we want things to change to point fingers when change is resisted. “If  those people weren’t so stubborn, we could get somewhere around here!” The fact is, though, that we all collude together in perpetuating the happiness trap, and we need to work together to escape it. Accusations and put downs will simply entrench hurt feelings.

Be clear about what needs to change and why.
Churches often have a vague sense that not everything is the way it should be, but don’t have a very coherent idea of what, specifically, they are prepared to do about it.

Why do you want young families? Is it only because you’re getting old and tired and need someone to share the workload? Not good enough. And not enough motivation to change the things that may be keeping younger people away. It has to be about them, not just you. You have to honestly assess both the likelihood of being able to attract young families, and your tolerance level for the changes they would create.

Communicate, communicate – then communicate some more.
A mistake I made over and over again in ministry was to assume that just because I had said something, people had heard it and understood it – and ought to agree with it. The fact is that change is difficult and frightening. It requires patience and persistence over time. You need to keep on telling people why it is that these changes need to happen, and deal carefully and compassionately with the emotions they stir up.

At the same time, gently but firmly emphasize that not every squeaky wheel is going to get greased, and that you are going ahead.

Leaders need to stick together.
The secretary at my former church used to say, “Never stand in the firing line alone.” Those were wise words. Often, the minister or key lay leaders are left out on a limb to bear the brunt of people’s displeasure on their own. Leaders need to support , encourage, care for and stand with one another during the process of change.

Take an “experimental” approach.
People’s fear of change is often a fear of the unknown, and of losing control. They may have a genuine fear that something precious will be lost forever. Most people also have difficulty imagining how tomorrow could be different from today. They instinctively oppose what they do not understand.

Anxiety drops, though, if the approach is one of “Let’s try this for a while to see if it works. If it doesn’t work, we’ll do something different.”

However, it’s critical to not abandon the vision for change at the first sign of failure or resistance. You need to gird up your loins and try something else, not simply revert to the status quo.

The Happiness Trap can give people a false sense of calm and security, which is one of the main contributors to church decline. Leadership means giving people the tools to break free.

(Gil Rendle and Alice Mann describe the Happiness Trap in their book Holy Conversations: Strategic Planning as a Spiritual Practice for Congregations.)

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The Grace of Giving and Receiving

Le Nain, Nativity with a Torch, 1600s
Christmas – the season for giving and receiving gifts. In the Child of Bethlehem we receive the self-giving love of God. And we are reminded that we are at our best when we give generously and receive gratefully.

So, if Christmas is about what is humanly truest and best, why all this giving and receiving cause us such stress? In our hearts, we know that Christmas in 2016 has a lot less to do with Jesus and a lot more to do with the insatiable demands of a consumer-driven economy. Christmas shopping can become a form of seasonal affective disorder, and when all is said and done we realize that no matter how much we
give or how much we are given, it doesn’t necessarily make us any happier.

Pondering these questions confronts us with all the twists and turns of our disordered hearts. We’re faced with what the fact that, in the words of St. Paul, “the good we would do we cannot do, and the wrong that we seek to avoid is the very thing that we do.”

We’re taught to receive gratefully, yet our receiving can be tainted with a sense of entitlement or resentment. We start to feel that we receive good things because we deserve them. Or, resentful that we don’t receive more than those who are less deserving than we are.

I’ve just finished a book entitled Strangers in Their Own Land by the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild.  A well known academic, Hochschild left her ivory tower in Berkeley, California and spent five years getting to know members of the arch-conservative Tea Party movement
in Louisiana. She wanted to overcome the “empathy wall” that increasingly divides and isolates Americans from those who think differently than they do.

Hochschild found her “Tea Party friends” (as she calls them) individually warm, engaging, generous and kind. But she also found that they habored a deep-seated resentment against people they thought had been given unfair advantages. In the quest for the “American dream,” less deserving people were unfairly jumping the queue ahead of hard-working people like themselves. “Line jumpers” include immigrants, Syrian refugees, welfare recipients, pampered government employees, affirmative action beneficiaries, the inner city poor. This belief, Hochschild discovered, explains the extraordinary hostility of the right to Barack Obama.  After all, (the reasoning goes) the only way that a mixed race child of a low-income single mother could have risen to the Presidency is if he were given unfair hand up, not available to ordinary (white) working people.

But before we rush to judge this attitude, let’s remember that the Baby of Bethlehem reveals the secret recesses of all our hearts. He compels us to look at the ways in which we too sometimes feel entitled and resentful of others who aren’t as “deserving” as we are. It’s an impulse that is within us all.

Likewise, our giving can come with a lot of strings attached. Generosity can be a means of wielding power over others by making them beholden to us. We condescend to those “less fortunate” in order to make ourselves feel virtuous and superior. Many Christian “good works” are more than a little marked by this self-congratulatory attitude.

At Christmas, we are invited to ponder the mystery of the Baby of Bethlehem and what his coming means for us. One of the central themes of Christmas is light. Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.”

That light of the Christ Child is warm and comforting, but it is also searching and painfully bright because, if we have eyes to see, it will make us face up to the truth about ourselves – that even our best-intentioned actions can conceal selfish motives that cause hurt to others, whether or not we’re aware of it. The angels sang about the arrival of “Peace on earth, good will to all,” but their song seems to be mocked by the inability of fallible human beings to actually live it out.

The Bible has a word for this human-all-too-human reality, a word that is widely misunderstood and pretty much out of fashion. The English word is “sin.” Sin is not breaking the rules or feeling badly about ourselves. Sin is the universal human impulse to misuse the good things we have been given.  The consequence is alienation from God, and, as a consequence, from others and from our own true selves. G. K. Chesterton once quipped that original sin is the only Christian doctrine that is empirically verifiable. Our thoughts and deeds are permeated by it every day.

Therefore, our attitude at Christmas should first of all be one of humility and poverty of heart. We need help – the help that only one who comes to us from God can bring. We need to receive before we can hope to give – receive the grace that is a free, no-strings-attached gift from beyond ourselves. If our hearts are going to be purified and our actions made right, we can’t rely only on ourselves. We need help.

What keeps this from being a depressing guilt trip is the wonderful mystery of grace. God comes to us in love, not to condemn us, but to empower us to do what we seem to be incapable of doing on our own. God does this by showing us the true Way to life, but also by freeing us from paralyzing guilt and shame. God shows us the way. But God enables us to walk the way through forgiveness and the assurance that we are never beyond hope or redemption.

When the Baby of Bethlehem grew up, he said, “The truth shall set you free.” In other words, we don’t need to be afraid of the truth because it does not condemn us, it frees us. That includes the truth about ourselves. Jesus came to tell us the love and grace of God are always stronger than whatever we have done or failed to do.

Detail from "Joseph the
Carpenter" by Georges de
la Tour, ca 1645
Martin Luther famously said, “Sin boldly.” By that, I think he meant, don’t be under any illusion that your motives and actions will ever be entirely sinless and pure. But don’t be paralyzed by the fear that you will get it wrong either, because it’s unavoidable. Instead, act according to your faith, and trust in the grace and mercy of God to redeem even your mistakes.

Jesus is more and more receding from public view at Christmas. Jesus even seems strangely absent from many of our churches. There seems to be an attitude that the less we’re about Jesus, the more people will be interested in us. But the one thing the Christian Church still has that people can’t get anywhere else is the message of the Christ Child. This message tells us the often painful truth about ourselves, but more importantly, the truth about the God of healing and salvation and grace. If we Christians have anything at all to offer to a hurting world, surely it is that message, in word and in deed.

If anything, we need to double down on our proclamation of Jesus, not retreat from it. It’s the gift we have been given that we are invited to give to others in such a way that it communicates the freedom and life that are God’s desire for us.

May you have a blessed and holy Christmas and a happy and grace-filled New Year.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Getting More Out of Your Mission Statement

In September I wrote a blog post which questioned the value of the mission statement. But if you worked hard on your church’s mission statement, I don’t want to suggest that it was wasted effort. I would like to share some thoughts, though, about how you can get more value out of your mission statement, so that it actually drives your mission.

One way to get more out of your mission statement is to identify the words that are the key to its meaning and focus on them.  I call these “weight-bearing words.”

These words function like a load-bearing wall in a house. According to Wikipedia, a load-bearing wall “bears a load resting upon it by conducting its weight to a foundation structure.” In other words, it allows the foundation to support the weight of the house so that it doesn’t
Load bearing wall

The weight-bearing words in your mission statement are those few words that connect your church’s life to its foundational purpose and identity. They capture the essence of who you are as a church. You should have two or three at most. If you can’t narrow it down to that few, then your mission statement is too diffuse and unfocused. And, if you find that the words that really describe your congregation’s purpose and identity aren’t in your mission statement – well, it’s time to retire that version of your mission statement.

Choosing two or three words doesn’t mean that the rest aren’t important. But the weight-bearing words often encompass others in their meaning. For example, the word “discipleship” could incorporate other words like “worship,” “fellowship” or “spiritual growth.”
Having narrowed your focus to these few, key words, you then reverse direction and expand them outward.  You do this by spending lots of quality time with them in worship and conversation, digging into them, drilling down into them, telling lots of stories about them, unpacking all their complex layers of meaning. You do this by creating as many opportunities as possible for people to interact with these words.

Often, weight bearing words seem on the surface to be very mundane and ordinary. They might include such everyday words as “family,” “community,” “caring” “faith” or “love.” But that’s OK. Our God is the God who comes to us in the everyday, and whose glory is revealed in the ordinary. From the beginning, the Christian church affirmed this understanding of God by taking ordinary, everyday words and discovering in them profound theological and spiritual significance.

Take the word baptizo, for example, from which we get our word “baptize.” Baptizo originally
described the act of dipping vegetables in brine to make pickles. The vegetables were changed by being Immersed in brine. How imaginative of the early Christians to take this workaday word to describe the inner transformation that takes place when believers are immersed in the waters of baptism. 

Or take the most common word for “church” in the New Testament, ekklesia. Originally, this was not a religious word at all, but referred to a town hall meeting where citizens were called together to conduct the business of the city. Rather than choose one of the many available words for a sacred or religious community, the Christians saw the potential of that mundane word to describe what happens when Jesus calls his followers together in a particular place to do his work.

Your weight bearing words may not be loftily spiritual, but quite non-religious and down-to-earth. This is as it should be since Jesus abolishes the dividing line between the sacred and the secular and turns every place into holy ground.

But ordinary does not mean shallow.  The reason mission statements are often ineffective is that we take a casual, “everybody-knows-what-that-means” attitude towards. Instead, we need to find ways to open ourselves to their hidden depths.

Let’s say your church decides that one of the keys to your purpose and identity is the word “inclusive.”  Don’t be content with just saying, “Oh, we accept everyone.” For one thing, choosing to include some people often means that you choose to not include others. Or, they exclude themselves because they do not feel they can find a home among you. Have some serious conversation about what exactly it means for you. Whom are you able to include in your church? How is that inclusiveness expressed in practical terms? How does that inclusiveness stretch and challenge you? What price are you willing to pay for including young families, persons with addictions, the poor, those with disabilities or mental health issues? Most importantly, how does that word “inclusive” help you to participate more fully in God’s mission of healing and reconciliation?

I’ve compared words to a wall. That’s an analogy, and, like all analogies, it can only be pushed so far. Words and walls may be similar in some ways, but they’re very different in others. A wall is static and stationary. Walls don’t move. In fact, they’d better not move!

Words, on the other hand, are dynamic and evolving. Our words echo the Word of God
which, the Letter to the Hebrews tells us, is “living and active.” They do not just describe what is, they have the power to evoke what could be. Words don’t just confirm the status quo, they hold the potential to change us.

If “inclusive” is one of your weight-bearing words, don’t let it make you complacent and self-congratulatory. Allow it to challenge your hidden biases, unexamined blind spots and the barriers you might be erecting to the participation of some that you’re not even aware of. If inclusivity truly is central to your identity and purpose, don’t be afraid to prayerfully face these uncomfortable questions head on.  Let this word prod you and invade your comfort zone. Then your mission statement can begin to do what it should do – lead you farther down the road of faithfulness.

The dynamic quality of these weight-bearing words means that they can change over time. The words that express the essence of who you are as a church today may not be the best words in five years. Part of our openness to the Spirit is being open to the future significance of different words to carry the weight of our church's life.

Mission statements can be nothing more than a string of empty and easily forgotten words, but they can also contain our best and most profound intuitions. Finding the words that bear their weight and exploring those words to the full is one way to get more out of our mission statements. 

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Congregational Surveys

When a church wants to know what people are thinking, what do they do? Often, they create a congregational survey. Whether they’re contemplating changes in worship or programming, or calling a new minister, the preferred method is the survey questionnaire.

What I often hear, though, is that the results are less than hoped for. The most common complaint is that younger people and those newer to the church don’t fill them out. “We want to know what the others think. How can we get them to complete the survey?" is a question I have heard over and over again. 

Here are some thoughts about creating better congregational surveys.

Most church surveys are put together by “insiders” – by people who are actively involved and familiar with how the church works. This can be unintentionally reflected in the way the survey questions are asked. For instance, a question like “Do you prefer traditional or contemporary music?” presupposes that people are familiar enough with the church that they know what those words mean. Someone who is new or who doesn’t attend very often may have no idea how to answer that question, and so conclude that this survey isn’t really for them. 

If you want to hear from people other than your active membership (which includes most younger people), create your questions with them in mind. 

Short and Sweet
Many congregational surveys are simply way too long. I saw one recently that had over 100 questions. The people who will be motivated to complete such a survey are those who are already committed to the church. Typically, that means people who are over 60, who attend regularly, and who have been members for ten years or more. A young couple, juggling work and family, may look at it and say, “I don’t have time for that.”

In general, it is more effective to have several short, clearly focused surveys than one long “omnibus” questionnaire.

Also, consider how the survey is delivered. Is it printed on paper and handed out after church? Then it's likely that only  older people will complete it. If you want younger and newer folks to respond, your survey needs to be available online using a program such as Survey Monkey. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’d better ask your grandkids.)

What’s the Angle?
People, especially younger people, are becoming increasingly suspicious and cynical about those who want to ask their opinions. They assume it’s in order to try to “sell” them something. The church is not exempt from that suspicion. 

“How can we provide more things for younger people if they won’t tell us what they want?” sounds like a well-meaning and sincere question if you're on the inside of the church. But to an “outsider,” it sounds like you’re more interested in shoring up the church and its programs than in hearing their opinions. So, they’ll pass.

What’s It For?
Many survey questions are prepared with little or no thought given to how the information gleaned from them will be used. For example, questions such as, “Would you like to have a church service at a time other than Sunday morning?” or “Would you like to replace the pews with chairs?” are good questions, only if you’re prepared to deal with the responses.
People tend to not be in favour of things that they aren’t familiar with, so your typical survey respondent will be more likely to say no to both of those questions. And people who might like to see those changes may believe that it doesn’t matter what they say because nothing is likely to change.

But in any case, if you have no intention of starting a new service or getting rid of your pews, don't ask for people's opinions about it. 

Never put a question into a survey unless you have a clear idea of what you plan to do with the responses.

Talk To Me
Written surveys provide a certain kind of information. But they should always be augmented by face-to-face contact – personal interviews, focus groups, intentional conversations. Checking a box on a survey won’t necessarily give you a clear idea of what people are thinking.

Once you’ve tabulated the results of your survey, follow up with individual and group conversations. This will give you a richer, “thicker” picture of what people in the church are thinking than the survey alone.

And remember: If you want to hear from people other than “insiders” – those active, long-time members – you need to be intentional about seeking out their contributions. The onus is not on them to answer your survey, it's on you to make it worth their while to give you their thoughts. 

Congregational surveys can be helpful sources of information, if they are easily understood, have a clear point, are not too long and are complemented with face-to-face conversations. It’s always a good idea to test out the questionnaire before you distribute it, remembering to get input from people outside the inner circle of the church. And, even if it costs a little bit of money, advice from someone with marketing experience can help you design a more effective survey. 

Thursday, September 29, 2016

What to Do When Everything is Unraveling

On September 17, 25 people from four congregations and one ecumenical ministry met at Wesley United Church in Cambridge to begin a journey called “Into the Promise.”

Into the Promise is a collaborative learning project initiated by Rev. Christine Jerrett, a
Christine Jerrett
United Church minister from Sarnia. It is based on the work of author and consultant Alan Roxburgh, using his recent book Joining God, Remaking Church, Changing the World.

Alan argues that churches in North America are in the midst of a “great unraveling.” The church that many of us were raised in seems to be coming apart. We have spent almost fifty years trying to “fix the church” – trying to find solutions that will stop people, especially young people, from leaving. But none of those efforts have worked. The church can’t be “fixed” – not in the sense of recreating the church we once knew.

Alan Roxburgh
Alan argues that this unraveling is actually the work of the Spirit. God is active in the world. And God still needs the church. 

But the basic questions have changed – from “church questions” (“How can we bring people back? How can we “fix” the church?”) to “God questions”  (“What is God doing in our neighborhoods and communities, and how can we join God?”)

This is a fundamental shift in vision and orientation, and it demands that we develop a new set of practices. Alan outlines five of these practices:
·         Listening. Learning to listen deeply to one another, to Scripture, to our neighborhoods and communities.
·         Discerning. Learning to see what God is up to in the lives of people.
·         Experimenting. Learning to develop simple, practical, “lightweight” ways of joining with God.
·         Evaluating. Asking, “What did we do? What are we learning? Where did we see God at work?” (And, not being afraid to fail!)
·         Deciding. Creating new, sustainable ways to be the church.

These deceptively simple practices involve learning a new set of skills. That’s what the
congregations involved in Into the Promise will be doing over the next 18 months. Small teams from each congregation will meet regularly. They will come together every other month to share their experiences and to receive coaching from Christine.  We will all learn as we go, realizing that we’re in uncharted territory.

Into the Promise is not a typical study program with a beginning and an end. Its purpose is to begin to shift the culture of our congregations. It involves learning to see things in a different way and to undertake new practices.

Into the Promise is also designed to be collaborative. Congregations will share with one another what they are doing and what they are learning. And the hope is that others will benefit from that learning in the future.

The “great unraveling” that Alan Roxburgh describes is disruptive and stressful. But it is also a time a hope and excitement because the Spirit is at work creating a new future.

Who’s involved in Into the Promise? Wesley United, Cambridge; St. Luke’s United, Cambridge; St. John’s-on-the-Hill, Cambridge; Rockwood-Stone Pastoral Charge; Knox United, Ayr.

Want to know more about Alan Roxburgh’s work? Visit

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Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Binding and Bridging

I think one of the most influential books of the last 20 years is Bowling Alone: The Collapse
and Revival of American Community by Robert Putnam. Putnam, a sociologist at Harvard University, describes how traditional forms of community have been on the decline in American – and I think we can say, Canadian – society since World War Two. He shows how people have become increasingly disconnected from family, friends, neighbors, and democratic structures. The title of his book comes from the fact that while more people are going bowling, membership in bowling leagues has plummeted. People are literally “bowling alone.”

Bowling Alone helps to explain what is happening to our churches. Churches are one of those forms of social participation that is in serious decline. The drop in attendance, disappearance of Sunday School, and aging congregations can be seen as part of a massive social change in which an increasing individualism is undermining the groups and organizations that our parents and grandparents relied on to give structure and meaning to their lives.

One of Putnam’s key ideas is what he calls “social capital.” We all know about physical capital – money, property, the goods and assets that can be used to create wealth, and that is the basis of our economy. Putnam argues that there is also social capital – the connections between people on which communities are built.

Think of all the communities that you are a part of – your neighborhood, school, social clubs, service organizations, church, coffee group at Tim’s. Think of how thick and rich the webs of relationships are that both strengthen community life and are strengthened by it. Think of how you are sustained by those connections, and how much poorer and thinner your life would be without them. Imagine that on a society wide level, and you’re thinking about social capital.  

Putnam goes on to argue, though, that there are two kinds of social capital. There is “binding” social capital which he says functions as a kind of social “superglue,” creating group identity and cohesion and giving people a powerful sense of belonging.

Then there is “bridging” social capital which acts like social “WD-40,” building bridges between different kinds of communities.

Churches are rich in social capital. That’s what people mean when they talk about their church as a “family,” a place where they know they belong. Even a small congregation has a complex web of connections.

We need this binding social capital, but it can be too much of a good thing. While it fosters close-knit relationships and loyalties, it can also lead to closed circles that are suspicious or hostile towards those who aren’t part of their group. Nobody has stronger social capital, Putnam argues, than the Mafia or the Hell’s Angels.

So what many church members identify as the most important quality of their congregation – that it is a “close knit family” – can also make it a closed circle. Churches that have strong binding capital can send a very subtle, but clear message to outsiders and new comers that there is no place here for you. This can happen in spite of the sign on the lawn that says “All Welcome.”

Binding social capital needs to be balanced by bridging social capital. As well as creating a strong sense of family, belonging and loyalty, churches need to intentionally forge connections beyond their members – with those outside the church, with new comers, and, with future generations.

Binding used to be enough when churches were replenished from within, when children grew up to be the next generation, or when new waves of immigrants were continually arriving. But that’s not so anymore, as once solidly ethnic denominations like the Christian Reformed Church are beginning to discover.

As the kind of social change that Putnam describes becomes more dominant, it’s natural for communities like churches to instinctively turn inward, seeking the comfort and reassurance that the ties that bind them to their friends provides. Ironically, though, as they become older and smaller, churches may actually become more resistant to new people who could revitalize them.

In other words, while our impulse might be to rely even more on the comfort and security of binding social capital, we need to find ways to strengthen the bridging social capital of our congregations if they are going to remain vital and alive in a rapidly changing world.

Rev. Paul Miller,